[Screen It]


(2015) (Jakob Salvati, Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa) (PG-13)

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Drama: An eight-year-old boy follows a local priest's advice about how to strengthen his faith all in hopes of bringing his father back home from World War II.
It's the 1940s, and the small coastal town of Ohaire, California seems idyllic in its Norman Rockwell type setting. There, James Busbee (MICHAEL RAPAPORT) runs the local auto shop with his son, London (DAVID HENRIE), who's set to join the Army to fight in World War II. But when he's rejected due to his flat feet, his father decides to take his place, much to the chagrin and worry of his wife, Emma (EMILY WATSON), and especially their young son, Pepper (JAKOB SALVATI).

He's an eight-year-old boy who doesn't really have any friends outside of his father with whom he shares various flights of fancy, including imagining himself as comic book hero/movie star/magician Ben Eagle (BEN CHAPLIN). Unlike the hulking local simpleton, Teacup (ABRAHAM BENRUBI), Pepper is very small for his age, and thus is often subject to bullying by various kids, including Freddy (MATTHEW SCOTT MILLER), the son of the local widowed physician, Dr. Fox (KEVIN JAMES).

Another person who is harassed by others is Hashimoto (CARY-HIROYUKI TAGAWA), a Japanese-American who's lived in the U.S. for decades but was recently incarcerated in an internment camp due to his ethnicity. Now released, he must contend with the likes of locals such as Sam (TED LEVINE) and others who don't like him living there.

Hashimoto's only ally is Father Oliver (TOM WILKINSON), the local priest who determines that pairing him up with Pepper will do the boy good. He add that to the list of things Pepper needs to do in order to strengthen his faith. Father Oliver wants to give the boy hope all while putting his faith in God to bring James back home from the war. Believing that will work, Pepper sets out to accomplish all of those things on the list, including reluctantly becoming friends with Hashimoto.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Magic, at least of the variety that populates Vegas stage shows, TV specials and so-called parlor tricks involves nothing but sheer, if often brilliant manipulation. The magician begins by framing the trick that's to occur and then uses some form of sleight of hand to pull it off, usually by forcing the audience's attention where he or she wants and needs it.

By their very nature, storytellers are also magicians and master manipulators, and none likely use that more than filmmakers. Not only do they have the story and its construction and delivery at their disposal, but also the accompanying score, camera composition and, of course, the performances, all of which they arrange for maximum effect.

Like their magician counterparts, the best filmmakers manage to do all of that without the audience realizing they're being manipulated. But sometimes the act, if you will, still works even if one is aware of said manipulation.

While it's certainly nowhere close to being a great film and often is clunky in its means, "Little Boy" is one of those films that oozes with all-too-obvious manipulation, but nonetheless manages to be entertaining enough to just barely overlook or at least not mind the trickery, if you will, at hand.

And it just so happens to include various bits of magic, be that an actual magician (Ben Chaplin) who instills into the title character (newcomer Jakob Salvati) a belief that he can control things if he concentrates enough, or the local priest (Tom Wilkinson) who tells the small-for-his-size eight-year-old (hence the title) that if he strengthens his faith through a set list of good deeds, God might step in and answer the boy's prayers.

Namely, that's to bring his beloved father (Michael Rapaport) home from the war (that being WWII), something the boy's mother (Emily Watson) and older brother (David Henrie) wouldn't mind. At the same time, the small coastal California town's lone Japanese-American resident (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) sees religion as little more than stage magic and thinks the priest, his friend, is possibly setting the boy up for major disappointment. But since this is the mid 1940s and anti-Japanese sentiment is still running high, the man ends up needing the boy as much as the kid needs this stranger to fulfill his faith-building check-off list.

They're kindred spirits of sorts, as both are bullied simply due to their outward appearance. And while that, some imagined nightmare views of the aftermath of the A-bomb devastating Hiroshima, other bits about Japanese internment camps in America and some POW related material might sound fairly heavy, director Alejandro Monteverde infuses much of the rest of the material with enough of a whimsical beat and aura that it all goes down fairly smoothly.

In fact, the structure of the pic -- penned by Monteverde and Pepe Portillo -- sometimes feels as if it's going for a sort of "Christmas Story" vibe, what with the young protagonist in a period piece, various child-based flights of fancy and imagined scenes, and the adult looking back on his childhood via voice over narration.

I welcomed that approach as far too many faith-based films take themselves far too seriously, especially when they get into full-out preaching mode. Here, the message is worked into the story more subtly, and doubts about religion and faith are handled well, thus giving the pic a bit more of a balanced feel as compared to many of its contemporaries.

But then there's the overt manipulation where the storyteller's magic and trickery is far too obvious. In fact, that's probably the reason why I didn't get teary-eyed at any given emotional moment as I couldn't fully get caught up in the story and its developments, what with seeing all of the strings being pulled and other mechanical parts in action.

Your enjoyment of watching the tale unfold will likely depend a great deal on your tolerance for such manipulation. If you don't mind its all-too obvious use, you might be entertained and maybe even moved. But if such attempts are akin to nails down a chalkboard, you'll likely pray for the film to wrap up soon. I fall in the middle and thus "Little Boy" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed April 22, 2015 / Posted April 24, 2015

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